Once, on March 10 1991, Michesi Mountain stirred into destructive wakefulness, causing mayhem and casting long shadows of despair as flush floods destroyed what Phalombe District residents had worked so hard to build in 27 years of Malawi’s independence.
The incident, whose impact was trumpeted by a rock avalanche, hit the limelight both locally and internationally. Who could ignore once vibrant villages lying in ruins, haunted by deaths, injuries and the spectre of helpless and hopeless families?
The March 10 1991 event can as well be described as a ‘loud’ crisis.
Today, Michesi still looms large, albeit depleted of the forest cover that once made it shelter for bio-diversity but there is s ‘silent’ crisis ravaging the seemingly undisturbed community.
Go to Mkhulambe Trading Centre, some two or three kilometres away from Michesi Mountain, and the peaceable atmosphere will mislead you into believing that all is well.
It is only when one talks to Traditional Authority Mkhulambe that they realise the gravity of one, silent and neglected problem.
After all, 1991 is such a long way back. Children have been born, post-Phalombe disaster children who have no idea, let alone memories, about what happened then. In fact, Michesi Primary School is full of learners whose present bears no blemishes of the past.
At the Mkhulambe Trading Centre, a bustling market, replete with about three drinking joints, betrays the picture of an area that once lay in ruins. One stretch of dusty road actually takes one to Michesi Mountain, the starting point of the 1991 disaster, all the way to Phalombe Central Business District – or Zero Point– without passing through Chiringa and Migowi centres.
Michesi Mountain has become the passage to Phalombe Zero Point, where all life begins. The district’s main public health facility, namely Phalombe Health Centre, is there. One commercial bank close to the District Health Office serves as an indication that the culture of saving is entrenching itself in Phalombe. The branch of one food chain store offers residents a modern shopping experience, not to mention the many shops. A Malawi Police Service Station is there, protecting the lawful citizen from jungle-suitable behaviour.
During both day and night, life comes to life at Phalombe Zero Point.
However, as the rest of Phalombe moves on, silent crises damage the fabric of society in Mkhulambe’s area.
“Cases of early marriages and gender-based violence are real. We also face the problem of high school dropout rates but we are working on that. The problem is that some girls and women have been suffering silently,” says Mkhulambe, an ambassador for girls’ education in Phalombe District.
Mkhulambe was there when water, self-driven and utterly destructive, swept through the area in 1991. After all, Michesi River, which served as one of the outlets for the flush floods, runs peacefully now, a stone-throw away from her residence at Mkhulambe Trading Centre.
Just that it is not clear whether her choice of residence— her house is located behind a Salvation Army church building made of red bricks — is intentional; that, maybe, the church building is in front of her house to shield her from evil forces such as flush floods.
For the time being, things seem to be working— but only as far as flush floods as concerned, for other challenges have silently crept in. Mkhulambe says her subjects now face another serious problem that may, if not addressed, even threaten to take away the gains made since 1991.
“Gender-based violence should not be tolerated. Some women are dying is silence. I think early marriages are one of the factors to blame for increased cases of gender-based violence. We have a role to ensure that this done not happen by sending our girls to school,” Mkhulambe adds.
Indeed, gender-based violence and school dropout rates were two of the issues that gained currency during a meeting Umodzi Youth Organisation (Uyo) organised at Mkhulambe Trading Centre two weeks ago.
Uyo, which is running the one-year ‘Stand Together in Fighting Violence Against Women and Girls’ Project in Phalombe, thanks to financial support from Amplify Change, enlightened 20 girls and women who have been watching silently as the vices of gender-based violence and early marriages eat through the fabric of society.
Phalombe Acting District Courts Administrator, Issa Salanje, and District Social Welfare Officer Emmerson Gama were handy— taking the 20 girls and women drawn from Mkhulambe’s area through topics such as right to education, right to life, freedom of association, human dignity and personal freedoms, among others.
Like Michesi River on March 10 1991, the floodgates were opened; just that these were the floodgates of knowledge, and not self-driven water whose results were utterly destructive.
Uyo Project Coordinator, Stella Masamba, observes that, apart from incidents of gender-based violence, cases of school dropout are rampant.
“Come to think of it, every year, 450 girls drop out of school in Traditional Authority Mkhulambe’s area. This is an alarming figure, especially because those who drop out of school opt for marriage. So, we had to come in a bid to reduce cases of gender-based violence. We have been doing this by addressing issues of harmful cultural beliefs and practices,” Masamba says.
Masamba is not speaking from the blues. During a Phalombe District Executive Committee meeting earlier this year, it was revealed that gender-based violence was one of the issues negatively affecting girls and women in Mkhulambe’s area.
It was further revealed that the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace was the only organisation working in the area— one organisation facing a hill of problems.
One of the women in the area, Ruth Mponda, observes that most women have been silent on gender-based violence because of lack of knowledge.
“All we needed was to have our eyes opened,” Mponda says.
Maybe, having had their eyes opened, the community members will pull the 13-year-old girl I found drinking opaque beer in one of the bars at Mkhulambe Trading Centre out of the trap, and take her back to school.
The future lies in girls like these.